Yesterday my 17-year-old son and I washed his car together in our driveway. I sprayed the car with the hose, watched as he scrubbed from top to bottom, then I sprayed again to rinse the soap. Together we dried.
It brought back memories of my step-father and lessons he taught me about cars. Not only the latest mechanical news in Road & Track, but how to care for the paint. Early on Sunday mornings, I washed my car. That was the rule. No matter what time my teenage adventures ended the night before, I was to be ready for car washing while our house’s shadows still covered the driveway cement.
He demonstrated once, “In the shade, start at the roof, move to the front and back windshields, then the body.” Our bucket doubled as housing for the dry rags and vessel of sudsy water. Once a month, I waxed the car. Back then you applied the wax; waited; and when it dried to almost opaque, rubbed it off using “elbow grease.” It was our ritual; he waxed his car while I waxed mine. For this, different rags – his favorite were cotton baby diapers. To preserve his hands for surgery he’d perform the next day, he wore disposable powdered latex surgical gloves, size medium. When we were finished, we’d go inside. He drank a mixture of lemon-grapefruit juice from our backyard trees.
When I was ten, after living with my single mom, I met my soon-to-be step-father. Later he legally adopted me. I imagined he would be in my life forever, sharing holidays and ordinary dinners with my husband, UCLA basketball games, chocolate cake, and eventually grandfatherly activities with my kids. I adored him.
During my early teens, he and my mom commented frequently on people they perceived had wronged them – something the accused may not have known or paranoid visions of stolen money. Most of the accused seemed nice. With some, we’d interacted pleasantly during the prior week, no sign of the storm to come. Often unprovoked, the cut-off was swift. His mother, twin brother, another brother, on-and-off his two daughters from his first marriage. Her parents, her two sisters, our next door neighbor.
I was confused and met their righteous indignation upon my slightest inquiry. With high tips, they befriended waiters in restaurants, her manicurist, and an employee in his medical practice. Then, they, too were dumped without warning – even the one who phoned, suicidal, from a psych unit only to be rejected support from them. I felt lucky and guilty for remaining their focus. Severing ties seemed to empower them.
I should have known my days were numbered. Over the years, he and my mom retreated from most everyone with whom they interacted except their 3 dogs. My mom alternated between her sweet, generous veneer and many rage-filled moments directed at me and others, including, I’d heard, a policeman who cited her for a traffic violation. She reported chronic bodily ailments, anxiety, and surgeries which all included various painkillers during recovery. The surgeries became more frequent. For many, I was at her bedside. My step-father remained busy with his medical private practice, beloved by many patients and, he perceived, his wife.
I struggled to decode the equation to being allowed to remain in their lives. I tried my best to adhere to every diet they prescribed; wore clothes, including shoes and underwear, they chose; pursued good grades; tried to cause little trouble at home. I loved them and would have done anything to remain the last woman standing in our crazy version of family. In 1989 at my UCLA graduation, dressed in cap and gown, I sat with them in the stands. It would be “too inconvenient,” they stated, for them to find me in the crowd after the ceremony. Days before I was married, they asked me to choose between attendance of my chosen maid-of-honor or them. I am ashamed of my cowardly decision to choose to have my parents at my wedding.
A week after my first son was born, their letter arrived. They accused my husband and me of owing them money. Although my husband and I knew we did not, we sent them almost all the money in our savings: the $10,000 for which they asked. Bleary-eyed with exhaustion, I was convinced this would end their accusations and allow our relationship to continue. It did not.
Like with the others whom they rejected, my parents refused my phone calls and notes requesting contact, reconciliation, an explanation or asking their forgiveness. On several occasions when I approached them in person with their grandson, they stared straight ahead and ignored us.
No matter my efforts during my son’s early years and for reasons unknown, my parents, a “folie-a-deux,” could not forgive the person they imagined me to be. For years this realization was devastating. I felt tortured by the loss and the “not knowing.” I sought advice from our family Rabbi, a therapist, and dear friends. With their support, I was determined to live differently. Although I am a flawed human being, my husband, Rabbi, therapist, friends, colleagues, and parents’ peers did not share my parents’ view of me. Instead they pointed out my parents’ manipulation and the repeated Catch 22 dramas they presented.
I held onto hope. Over time, I have forgiven them for their choices. As a new mother and wife, I created a life, never without uncertainty or moments of regret for what I could or should have done. It has been 18 years.
I realize I will never know why. I’ve learned that there are lots of things in life about which we may never know. We all live with some uncertainty. We can and must go on.
A year ago I received a text from a number I did not recognize. “By now I am sure you’ve heard about Daddy. Could you please send your address? The attorney needs it.”
Dazed, I stared at the phone. I had never called him “Daddy” and I hadn’t heard anything about him for some time. I responded to the inquiry by asking if I could phone. His daughter answered. She mentioned he had been sick with lung cancer for two years and that she had visited him on several occasions during that time. With my mom and a handful of people, she attended his funeral. Her sister, still cut off, had not. His brothers still were not welcome. The funeral was the Sunday before her text. My brain noted it as the day of a UCLA/USC rivalry basketball game I’d attended with my kids. Although he had retired, it was sad to hear that his professional colleagues also may not have been informed or given the opportunity to attend. I did not feel sorry for myself. Instead I imagined the sparsely populated graveside. The picture felt empty, melancholic.
It’s difficult to understand the specifics which moved us from Sundays in the driveway, listening to Neil Diamond and John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as we raced to dry our cars before the morning sun, to his permanent absence. I am thankful for the care, generosity, education, and home they provided while we shared our lives. My life now is full – a loving husband, loyal friends, extended family, two wonderful sons. It has been confusing to explain to them why their grandparents weren’t in our lives. It is confusing to me. I did what I could. I miss what could have been. All I can do is assure my loved ones I am committed to them no matter what. I am grateful for them, our deep connections, and to be given this chance to remain devoted to them.
I still do not know the inner workings of cars or the man who was my father. My son’s car is clean, top to bottom. Of this, my early Sunday morning teacher would have been proud.